Jim Adams: Sharks turn defensive this season
This was supposed to be the bust-out season. The maturing offense was going to lead the way.
With veterans like Joe Thornton, Patrick Marleau, and Jonathan Cheechoo; this group was poised to enjoy the offensive threats of Steve Bernier, Ryane Clowe, Marcel Goc, Joe Pavelski, and Milan Michalek. With so much speed and with such a lauded offensive threat, the pre-season prognosticators all had the Sharks scoring a bundle of goals while leaving the opposition in the dust.
“We all agreed the season would be all offense,” Defenseman Kyle McLaren
remembered. “We were not concerned with the scoring.”
However, a funny thing happened on the way to the rink. Cheechoo and Marleau went into an extended slump. Clowe went on the injured reserve. Goc failed to develop. The offense, with the exception of Joe Thornton, failed to jell as expected.
Suddenly the emphasis had shifted. A team predicted to be the most dominant offensive team in the league was challenged to step it up defensively and shut the door on the opposition.
The transition to a strong defensive team started in goal. Evgeni Nabokov has arguably been the hottest goalie in the National Hockey League. With the most wins in the league, most number of starts, and fourth best goals against average, he anchors what has developed into a strong defensive corps.
“We all knew he could do it,” McLaren noted. “He is in the gym all the time. We know he will make the first stop. We have great confidence in him.”
Sure enough, the Sharks find themselves near the very top of the Western Conference. Having played significantly fewer games than almost every other team, they have the third most points at this point in the season. It is not difficult to make an argument that the credit for these accomplishments resides in the defensive end of the rink.
Aside from being the number two team on the penalty kill, they have also surrendered the second fewest goals in the league. Having generated the fewest road losses in the league, the team has found a way to win games via defensive strength.
The road has not been easy. Scott Hannan escaped to Colorado via free agency. Mike Rathje had departed two years earlier. It was a young squad still under development … until they came into their own this season.
McLaren remembers, “The defensive unit came in and realized everyone had to step up. We have to rely upon all six defensemen to get it done. Douglas Murray has been huge this year. Although we are all a year older, it is the work that some put in this summer that is really making a difference. Our goals against average is down. Our shots against per game are down. Even though we have no big names, I am not concerned. It shows with the wins.”
So it is. As the regular season begins to journey into its final third, many wonder what it would be like if the offense catches fire. With Cheechoo notching a hat trick last Saturday against the Nashville Predators and with Jeremy Roenick adding a nice punch, there are signs of promise. Joe Thornton needs to find adept players who can finish the passes he directs their way.
However, do not be surprised if it is the Kyle McLarens, Craig Rivets, Christian Ehrhoffs, and Marc-Edouard Vlasics of the world lead this team to the Promised Land. They just might hold the key to a deep run towards Lord Stanley’s Cup.
Regardless, if the old axiom that defense wins championships is true, the San Jose Sharks are poised for a rich harvest. As the dog days of the regular season dawn, San Jose looks to a developing offense, a surprisingly strong defense, and the league’s best goaltending to lead them deep into the post-season.
Jim Adams, lives in Nevada City, is a regular contributor to The Union and a broadcaster for TouchDown Productions. He may be reached via e-mail at email@example.com.
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